Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: New on the Bookshelf: "Americans in Space" by Mary E. Mitchell

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

New on the Bookshelf: "Americans in Space" by Mary E. Mitchell

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mary E. Mitchell is one of my unseen online friends. We’ve never met in person, although I’m hoping we will, since we are both in the Boston area. But what I know of Mary is her generosity and good humor in taking on the “herding cats” job of organizing a lovely retreat for women writers each spring in Duxbury, and her accomplishments as a writer of well-reviewed novels, including this latest one.

Mary’s new book is “Americans in Space.” Her style has been described as “one party poignancy, one part humor” and, in choosing “Americans in Space” as an Indie Next selection, the reviewer said, " ‘Americans in Space’ will speak to all readers, especially to parents of teens."

Mary’s first novel is “Starting Out Sideways,” a 2007 Thomas Dunne Book from St. Martin's Press. For years she has taught writing at the Joan Brack Adult Learning Center and at Bethany Hill School, a living and learning community, both in Framingham, Massachusetts.

In describing “Americans in Space,” Mary says:

“For months I have been telling readers that “Americans in Space” is about loss, and about the long, excruciating road back from loss for a young widow and her unmoored family. The novel’s main character, Kate Cavanaugh, struggles mightily two years after the death of her beloved husband. She cannot reach Charlotte, her angry teenage daughter, who acts out in cyberspace and in tattoo parlors. She cannot get Hunter, her four year old son, to speak in full sentences, or relinquish the ketchup bottle he carries clutched to his heart. She cannot find happiness, despite the best efforts of resourceful friends, an eager love interest or colleagues at work. Kate is a guidance counselor at the Alan B. Shepard (first American in space!) High School, and runs a weekly counseling group for mixed-up, troubled students. Her group is called New Frontiers. My misfits, Kate lovingly calls them.

“It is the one area of Kate’s life that seems to work, her weekly efforts with these deeply troubled children. Unlike with her own daughter, Kate feels she can bring comfort and meaning to these young people’s lives. They look up to her and trust her and try not to curse when they’re around her. She has a way of making them believe in themselves, even when they’re feeling most self-loathing or unsure. One girl in her group, Phoenix, especially captures Kate’s interest.

‘She looks nothing like my Charlotte,” Kate muses, “yet I often imagine Phoenix to be my daughter’s psychic twin. She is sensitive, intelligent, volatile. If my own daughter were blonde instead of dark, and named for a city instead of for Kyle’s grandmother, Charlotte might be this lovely waif in my office. Except that Charlotte didn’t swallow a whole bottle of ibuprofen last year.’

I think what I realize, only after writing this novel and then seeing it in print, is that Kate has been healing herself all along, through her work with other people’s children. It is the giving of herself to others that finally touches the iceberg within her heart. The warmth and forgiveness she feels for these children begins to allow her to forgive herself and love her children just the way they are. A truth, then, emerges from fiction.

It’s a funny thing to find a lesson in one’s own work. Maybe we are our own best teachers, if only we listen closely enough.”

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